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CIS Corner: Canada West’s Vanier Cup drought, explained

Andrew Harris became a CFL success without playing in CIS (The Canadian Press)

One storyline going into the Canadian Interuniversity Sport football season is Western Canada's Vanier Cup drought. Just one team from west of Ontario has hoisted the Vanier Cup in the past 13 season. This is a stark contrast from the run the Canada West conference enjoyed from the late 1970s through late '90s, when its teams claimed university football supremacy 11 times in 20 seasons without ever once having home-field advantage for the title game.

Some who follow CIS football religiously might find the explanation Calgary Dinos coach Blake Nill recently proferred"I think the physicality — the sheer attrition the teams go through during the season is quite extreme," — to be insufficient. It might be apples to pomegranates to compare the 26-team CIS to the NCAA's 124-team Football Bowl Subdivision since the former has actually had a playoff system for 45 years, but the SEC is pretty physical on a weekly basis, too. It keeps pumping out the top teams in the NCAA, although being propped up by ESPN helps.

What happened to the Canada West conference is the game has changed on them. That does not rule out a team such as Nill's Dinos, who are loaded for bear (and Huskies, Rams, and Thunderbirds and Bisons too presumably) winning it all this fall. There should be some acknowledgement of why big teams from out West aren't rolling into Toronto for the Vanier Cup and steamrolling the easterners.

There are probably more factors, but there are four that can be isolated.

— The Andrew Harris ripple effect. The B.C. Lions' Canadian tailback's Wiki states he "took the rare path to professional football by going through the junior system. It was rare in 2006 when Harris, a Winnipegger who had been recruited by his hometown Manitoba Bisons, decided to get some seasoning with the Vancouver Island Raiders of the junior British Columbia Football Conference.

The rest is recent Canadian junior football history. Harris tore it up with the Raiders. This mixed in with a couple other developments. The Raiders and their outspoken benefactor, Hadi Abassi, realized it was worth their while to convince good players to stay in junior football instead of lighting out for CIS. The result has been that junior football has become more of an alternative for players with pro ambitions. There's more investment in the league, with teams such as the Raiders or Saskatoon Hilltops giving players de facto scholarships to play junior football and have their school tuition covered. And not play CIS.

Savvy CFL personnel types such as Lions GM Wally Buono also realized it was to their benefit to have junior players on the practice roster. They do not count against league-mandated limits and will not leave on Aug. 15 to return to school and a CIS team.

— Madly off in all directions. Along with increased recruiting pressure from the junior ranks, there is a NCAA team in Western Canada now that the Simon Fraser Clan have taken their ball to Division II.

In other words, you have a conference spread across four provinces with two other sources sticking their straws into the same talent pool. It's a complicated football ecosystem.

Ontario and Quebec, by contrast, are more on the same page. Junior football isn't as popular in Canada's most populous province as in the West, but it has proven to help skill-position players hone their games before going directly from high school to university. That is probably why Ontario University Athletics seems to have an assembly line of elite passers, including current standouts such as McMaster's Kyle Quinlan and Windsor's Austin Kennedy and potential star such as incoming Western Mustangs QB Will Finch.

Similarly, Quebec's CEGEP ranks funnel players directly to CIS, save for an exceptional few who head south.

— Age limits. For good or ill, CIS levelled the playing field when it mandated that football players have only a seven-year window to play five seasons that starts the moment they finish high school. (It's eight for a Quebecer since high school ends at Grade 11.)

That ended the days when teams, not necessarily just from the west, could suit up players in their mid and late 20s. Time was, a footballer from the Priaries could max out his junior eligibility before going to school at age 22 or 23, the age when many players in Ontario were close to finishing their playing days.

The 2007 Manitoba Bisons national championship team, which was the subject of derision for the advanced age of its lineup, was likely the last of that breed.The level playing field probably has been friendlier to Ontario schools.

— Laval. Ever heard of it? The Rouge et Or are not defending champions entering this season and their Vanier Cup loss to McMaster was only an upset to people who are not paying attention. The well-bankrolled behemoth from Quebec City is kind of an important game-changer. Canada West's drought, so-called, coincidentally began in 1999 when Laval won its first national title. The Rouge et Or, which are 6-1 in the championship game, have dashed a Canada West team's Vanier dreams six times. The only Laval championship run that didn't involve doing that came in 2003, when they beat Halifax's Saint Mary's Huskies, who had throttled Simon Fraser in the semi.

Imagine if Laval was out of the mix. Would this article even be written?

(As an aside, it's almost hard to imagine what the university football landscape would look like without Laval in its current form.)

Put that all together and Canada West might not even be in a slump. There are just a number of uncontrollable factors. The two strong leagues in Central Canada have the benefit of being tightly clustered together. Six teams spread across four provinces does not a cluster make.

The sport has changed. Look at what happened to UBC's Billy Greene, who won the Hec Crighton Trophy, did not. Three of the four QBs who led their teams to the CIS semifinals last season got to soak up the experience of a CFL training camp. Greene did not. The B.C. Lions instead invited Jordan Yantz, the Vancouver Island Raiders QB who had turned down UBC.

That symbolizes what Canada West is up against. That won't make anyone not work hard and the conference is obviously capable of turning out a viable Vanier Cup contender. But the good life isn't quite as good as it was in the 1980s and '90s, when Calgary, Saskatchewan and UBC won multiple titles.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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